Beyond Black and White

“Colour is over-rated: stick to a classic palette of ink navy, charcoal grey, white, pale pink, black, chocolate brown and camel. Try to avoid yellow and green. And never use the word palette.” — Dylan Jones, GQ[1]   “What’s most important is not to look phony. When every aspect is too carefully put together, a man looks unreal. Dressing well should be fun, not hard labor. I dislike anything that smacks of putting a man in a slot, a uniform. Dressing well is being an individual.” — Luciano Franzoni[2] Though classic formal wear styles stress the prominence of black and white—and only black and white (save, perhaps, a dash of dark red or blue-gray in the form of your buttonhole flower)—even the most steadfast traditionalists agree that contemporary formal wear is served well by the addition of color. Of course, the allowed colors—as well as those formal outfit components best served by the addition of color—remain debated. In terms of the former, Alan Flusser recommends that you wear only those colors that are “rich enough to hold their own against the severity of black and white”: he lists, for example, burgundy, bottle green, deep gold, dark red, and Vatican purple.[3] Regarding the latter, he suggests that you add only one colorful item to your ensemble, creating a distinctive look while using black and white to tie the structure of your outfit together: “The ideal position for this dollop of panache is where it can be surrounded by black and thus integrated into the whole.”[4] Recommended places to use color include your vest, cummerbund, dress shirt, and pocket square—even patterned hose can work in your favor if you are a “more assured dresser.”[5] As even more assured dressers, though, modern men are successfully adding color—even multiple colors!—to every piece of their formal attire, from bow ties to waistcoats to tuxedo jackets themselves.

Colorful Waistcoats & Cummerbunds

[caption id="attachment_301" align="alignright" width="234"]venetian-mandarin-cummerbund.jpg.png Bright Orange Mandarin Cummerbund - Perfect for Making a Statement![/caption]   A waistcoat or cummerbund is an excellent place to add a dash of color. Peeking out from below your jacket, a differently colored waist covering can add individual flair without stealing the show from you: remember, you are always the star of the evening (as far as your appearance is concerned, anyway!), not your clothes. One important thing to keep in mind, when choosing a non-traditionally colored waistcoat or cummerbund for your black-tie ensemble, is not to let your outfit get too matchy-matchy. When wearing a traditional black bow tie and waistcoat, say, you want the two elements to match. However, when you bring colors into the mix, a matching set of waist covering and neckwear can make your entire outfit look prepackaged and cheap instead of carefully selected: “The black-tie ensemble is already regimented and predictable; adding coordinates that make you appear even more prepackaged not only suggests the wearer’s lack of sophistication, but produces an effect of something akin to gift wrapping.”[6] Instead, select a bow tie that goes well with your cummerbund or waistcoat without matching it exactly: this creates the desired look of educated sophistication.[7] For an example of how to wear a colorful waistcoat and bowtie (and, in fact, an entire tuxedo!), you need look no further than David Oyelowo’s look at the 2015 Oscars. I’ll talk about colorful tuxedos in a moment, but for now, note the way his waistcoat and bow tie go together perfectly without looking like they came from a matched set—see, for example, the silk sheen of the bow tie in comparison to the matte waistcoat. Show-stopping!

Colorful Dress Shirts

A colorful dress shirt (or even an off-white or ivory dress shirt—anything other than the traditional starched white) can also add some subtle individual flair to a successful black-tie ensemble… when selected and worn well, of course. Once again, it’s important to keep several ground rules in mind: first, your dress shirt should work well with the rest of your outfit without matching other pieces identically. Second, your dress shirt should add just enough excitement to make you look exciting, without stealing the show for itself. Unfortunately, there are few examples of colored dress shirts done well at 2015’s batch of awards shows, but Alan Cumming’s Golden Globes look is an example of what not to do when choosing a non-traditional dress shirt (or anything else for that matter!—but we’ll talk about those other elements later on). Note, first, how painfully coordinated the entire outfit—dress shirt included—is. Other than some textural variation in the dinner jacket’s lapels, everything matches perfectly—and perfection reminds one of a boxed set rather than a collection of carefully selected elements. Second, note how the color of the shirt distracts from Cummings’ face (if anything, it might actually leach color from his face!). Again, each piece of clothing you select should both complement each other and, most importantly, complement and highlight you! (It is, of course, possible to wear a non-traditionally colored dress shirt well: just do the opposite of everything here!)

Colorful Bow Ties

[caption id="attachment_300" align="alignleft" width="244"]poly_satin_bow-_tie Colorful Bow Ties[/caption] This advice is probably starting to sound repetitive again, but it bears repeating because it’s that important: no element of your ensemble should steal the show from you, particularly from your face! This is why Alan Flusser, for example, warns gentlemen to proceed with caution if selecting a non-traditionally colored bow tie: because it’s not surrounded by black and because it sits so close to the face, it’s easy for your bow tie to compete with your face for a viewer’s attention. That said, wearing a colorful bow tie certainly can be done right (remember David Oyelowo’s shiny red Oscars number?). Here (also at the 2015 Oscars), note how Common’s white bow tie brings a touch of white-tie elegance to his already stunning look—complete with velvet smoking jacket-like tuxedo. Here, the non-traditional bow tie color helps his starched white dress shirt draw attention up to his face rather than distracting the eye. See also Neil Patrick Harris’ elegant gray bow tie below: by echoing (yet not copying) notes from his tuxedo, the non-traditional color helps to tie the outfit together without drawing any attention away from the man himself.

Colorful Dinner Jackets & Trousers 

Proceed with caution here, as most experts recommend that if you experiment with colors, you ought to do so via your accessories (or other elements that are safely surrounded by black). Many insist that colored tuxedos are merely for the likes of proms, and have no place on a grown man at a true formal event.[8] To be fair, there are plenty of instances where colorful tuxedos destroy the formality and taste that make up everything men’s formal wear is about—you haven’t forgotten Allen Cumming’s khaki atrocity, have you? [caption id="attachment_302" align="alignright" width="215"]Red Tuxedo Jacket The ability to pull off colorful formal wear, conveys true confidence![/caption]   However, for every red carpet disaster, there is a man who uses an entire expanse of color (in the form of either a full tuxedo or a tuxedo jacket alone) to exemplify that classic elegance in fresh, modern style—from Oyelowo’s stunning burgundy look at the start of this section, to the multiple just-brighter-than-midnight blue tuxedos this year’s awards shows brought (Eddie Redmayne’s Oscars look is a brilliant example—Esquire’s #2 rated look of the night!), to Neil Patrick Harris’ subtle, shawl-collared gray tux. Finally, please note that while the examples discussed here certainly don’t demonstrate the only ways you might choose to incorporate color into your formal ensemble, I hope that they serve as helpful guidelines (or, in some cases, warnings!) for your own experimentation. Remember that, no matter how much you might like a particular look on the red carpet, it’s important that you choose pieces that work well with your face, your body, and so on: familiarizing yourself with the lines and colors that highlight you best is some of the most important work you can do toward developing a personal formal wear style. And again, if you’re not confident enough (yet!) to wear a burgundy tux complete with red accessories, don’t worry! Starting small and building up a personal style piece by piece will always look (and feel) better than being swallowed by a show-stopper that isn’t right for you. [1] Jones, 187. [2] Quoted in Hix, 24. [3] Flusser (1996), 83. [4] Ibid. [5] Note: I’ll discuss pattern (including hose and pocket squares) in a separate section. [6] Ibid. [7] Boyer; Bridges; Flusser (2002). [8] Boyer, 18; Flusser (2002).